“The Harmonium In My Memory” is a film set in 1962 Korea, in a very rural village. Kang Soo-ha (a young Lee Byung-hun) is a 21 year old teacher sent to the village for his first assignment. He falls for the other new assignee Yang Eun-hee (Kim Jae-in), but is unable to totally connect with her. At the same time, one of his students, the 17 year old Yun Hong-yeon (the brilliant Jeon Do-yeon) falls totally for him.
Kang sets his class a task, to improve their literacy – to write their daily lives down in a journal. Hong-yeon takes to this with gusto, expressing her feelings through her homework.
You get a sense of the poverty of the area. Many of the men are missing from the village (this is just after the Korean War, so although not explicitly mentioned it is obvious how the conflict has affected things), and illiteracy is rife. Kang is also an idealist, trying to make a difference, but his very ideals keep him from acting on his feelings.
It is a film about youth and age. Hong-yeon is actually only 4 years younger than the object of her desire – exactly the same age as Soo-ha and his own infatuation. We realise in their own ways they are both immature, and we do see them grow as the film gently progresses.
Jeon Do-yeon is totally astonishing in this film. She plays the gangly, confused young girl to perfection. If you have ever been 17, you will know exactly her frustrations with life. More remarkable is how her character grows and changes, starting off as shy, then becoming quite vindictive, before blooming into someone capable of the most tender act of love.
What she does at the end – is so sweet, so mature, that you would be heartless not to finally understand the love she feels for him.
The film is a sad one. No one is rescued from poverty. Most characters are still trapped in the lives in which we found them, only the two interlopers have managed to escape. All the love seems unrequited. If the film ended there, it would still be great, but the director has one final treat for us. At the very end, as the credits roll, we get a blink and you’ll miss it revelation, that the story does have a happy ending.
It is not without faults, and is possibly a little overlong. But without doubt a wonderful, beautiful movie.